Society and Cooperation
Let me begin with a few words about society. Why is there society? Why do people cooperate? Why is there peaceful cooperation rather than permanent war among mankind? Austrians, and in particular Misesians, emphasize the fact that we do not need to assume anything like sympathy or love for other people in order to explain this. Self-interest—that is, to prefer more over less—is entirely sufficient to explain this phenomenon of cooperation. Men cooperate because they are able to recognize that production under division of labor is more productive than self-sufficient isolation. Imagine just that we would withdraw from division of labor, and you would immediately recognize that we would be desperately poor and most of mankind would immediately die out.
Note one important thing here, and I’ll come back to this. What this explanation implies and what it does not imply: It does not imply of course that there will be always and without any exception or disturbance nothing but peace among men. There are always robbers and murderers around, and every society somehow has to deal with these types. But what it does imply is that the Hobbesian account of the emergence of peaceful cooperation is fundamentally misconceived.
Thomas Hobbes assumed that people would be permanently at each others throats if it were not for some independent third party—that is the State of course—to make peace among them. Now, you notice immediately what kind of curious construction this. People are assumed to be bad wolves, and they can be turned into sheep if another third wolf is made to rule above them. If this third party is also a wolf, as obviously he must be, then even if he can make peace between two individuals, this obviously implies that there would be a permanent war between the ruling wolf and the two wolves that are now peacefully cooperating with each other.
What this implies is something of great importance. There must be no State, or there must be no independent third party, in order to have cooperation between two individuals. Which you can also recognize immediately if you just look, for instance, at the international scenery. There exists no such thing as a world government—at least not yet—and still, people of different countries still cooperate peacefully with each other. Or, even out of the greatest social chaos, cooperation always emerges again.
What this boils down to is simply that peaceful cooperation between humans is a perfectly natural and constantly reemerging phenomenon; and out of this cooperation then, and equally naturally, and equally driven by self-interest, comes capital formation, and money, the medium of exchange, and then the division of labor ultimately expands to the entire globe, and likewise money, commodity money, also becomes a worldwide used commodity money. Material living standards increase for everyone, and based on higher material living standards, an ever more elaborate superstructure of non-material goods, that is civilization—science, arts, literature, and so forth—can be developed and maintained
Protection and the State
But something can and obviously has happened that disrupts and distorts or even derails this normal, self-interest driven development. And this is of course the State, which I will define initially, rather abstractly, as a compulsorily-funded territorial monopolist of protection. That is, a monopolist of defense and the provision and enforcement of law and order.
Now how does a State originate? While this is generally, and I think intentionally, confused, it should be made clear right from the outset that law and order, or protection of property, and State law, and State order, and State protection are not one and the same thing; they are not identical things. Just as property and social cooperation based on the division of labor are natural, so the human desire to have one’s property protected against natural and social disasters, such as crime, is a completely natural desire. And in order to satisfy this desire, there is first and foremost self-protection. Precaution, insurance (individual or cooperative), vigilance, self-defense, and punishment.
And let there be absolutely no doubt as to the effectiveness of a protection system based on peoples willingness to defend themselves. This is how law and order was maintained for most of the time for most of mankind. In every village, even up to this day, law and order is basically maintained in this way. The American Wild West, which was not exactly “wild” as compared to the current situation, that’s the way law and order was maintained, by people being willing to defend themselves.
Moreover, the division of labor will then naturally affect the production of security and protection services. The higher standards of living grow, the more people will, besides relying on self-defense measures, also want to partake in the advantages of the division of labor, and attach themselves for protection to a specializes protector, to providers of law and order, justice, and protection. And naturally, every person will look for this particular task to persons or institutions who have something to protect themselves—who have the means to assure effective protection and have a reputation as just and impartial judges. In every society of more than the most minimal degree of complexity, there will quickly emerge specific individuals, who on account of having property to defend, having a good reputation and so forth, will assume the role of judges and peacemakers and protectors. And again, every single village up to this day, every small community, and even the Wild West of course, illustrate the truth of this conclusion.
Protection is also possible without a State. This should be absolutely obvious, but in an age of statist obfuscation and confusion, it is increasingly necessary to emphasize this elementary and yet as we will see, very dangerous insight. The decisive step in diverting human history from its natural course—the original sin of mankind, so to speak—occurs with the monopolization of the provision of protection, defense, security, and order: the monopolization of these tasks by a single one of these initially numerous protectors at the exclusion of all others. A protection monopoly exists once a single agency or a single person can effectively insist that everyone on a given territory must exclusively come to him for justice and protection. That is, that no one can rely exclusively or solely on self-defense, or attach himself for protection to somebody else. Once this monopoly is reached, then funding of this protector is no longer entirely voluntary, but in part becomes compulsory.
And, as standard Austrian economics predicts, once there is no longer free entry into the business of property protection, or any other business for that matter, the price of protection will rise, and the quality of protection will fall. The monopolist will become increasingly less of a protector of our property, and increasingly more a protection racket, or even a systematic exploiter of property owners. He will become an aggressor against and a destroyer of the people and their property that he was initially supposed to protect.
Now what is easily described in abstract terms (monopoly) is in practice a painstaking and lengthy task. How can anyone get away with barring all other protectors from competition? And why would the people and especially the excluded other potential peacemakers and judges allow such a thing to happen, that one individual monopolizes this service? Now the answer regarding the original of the State is in detail very complicated, but in its general structure is very easy to recognize.
First, every state, that is every monopolistic protection agency, must begin, or can only originate on an extremely small territorial level, such as a village. It is practically inconceivable that a world State, or a protection monopoly encompassing the entire world population could come into existence from scratch.
The second thing we have to notice is that not just anyone become a local protection monopoly. Rather, the local protection monopolists are initially members of the natural social elite. That is, they are initially accomplished and acknowledged members of society. They were also, before they reached the position of a monopolist, previously chosen voluntarily as protectors. Only as established and recognized elites, whose authority is essentially voluntary, is it possible for them to make this decisive step toward monopolization and get away with it.
That is to say, every initial local government or state originates in the form of personal or private lordships or of princely rule. No one would entrust just anyone with the maintenance of law, order, and justice, and in particular if this person or agency had a monopoly for this particular task. Instead, people would look for protection obviously from someone known, and known to be a knowledgeable person, and only such a person, a noble or an aristocrat, can possibly attain a monopoly position initially.
Historically, by the way, if one looks at modern or ancient history, States everywhere are basically first princely States, and only later do they become democratic States. And even though it is true that States must begin only locally and usually as princely States, it still took hundreds of years before anything resembling the modern State came into existence.